GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An international charity on Wednesday removed 15 animals from a Gaza Strip zoo, freeing them from stifling conditions in what it called "the worst zoo in the world" and hoping to grant them a better life abroad.
Four Paws, an animal welfare group, crossed from Gaza into Israel with a tiger, five monkeys, a porcupine and an emu, among others. Most of the animals are destined for an animal sanctuary in Jordan while the tiger is headed to a refuge in South Africa.
The animals' removal effectively closed the long-troubled zoo.
The charity said the Khan Younis zoo suffered financial difficulties earlier this year and couldn't provide the animals with proper care and food. After the zoo owner asked the organization for help, Four Paws provided food and medical checks. It was later decided that the animals would be transferred elsewhere.
"The conditions the animals were under were very far from ideal," said Amir Khalil, who is leading the Gaza mission for Four Paws. Their new homes will be "a big change."
There is little awareness of animal welfare in Gaza and the impoverished territory's zoos have in the past made international headlines. The Khan Younis zoo turned to taxidermy to keep its deceased animals on exhibit while another zoo in the strip painted stripes on donkeys to try and make them look like zebras.
Four Paws has previously made similar rescues out of Gaza, including the extraction of several lions and lion cubs. The cubs were taken out of a refugee camp after a zoo had sold them as pets to a camp resident.
Khalil said the conditions in the Khan Younis zoo were difficult. The tiger, Laziz, was kept in a three square meter cage alongside a taxidermied tiger. In his new home in South Africa, he will roam in a 10,000 square meter enclosure where he will be able to enjoy swimming and climbing, Khalil said.
Highlighting the precariousness of the animals' existence at the zoo, Khalil said a baby deer that was set to be evacuated died in the lead-up to the mission after being wounded. Its mother was also wounded but was successfully removed from the Gaza Strip.
Wednesday's rescue was coordinated with COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs.
Conditions in Gaza, home to 1.8 million people, have steadily deteriorated since Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction, seized control of the territory in 2007 and prompted an Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
Its zoos have not been immune. Years of conflict, cold winters, longstanding negligence and outbreaks of disease have killed many animals in captivity. Most of Gaza's zoos are private business ventures, set up by owners who lack experience in caring for animals in captivity.